I didn’t know that this book was so controversial until I Googled it. People actually believe that this novel is proof that the author wants to murder his disabled son. I’m sorry, but that seems idiotic. If authors were as twisted as their characters, Stephen King would have been in prison 30 years ago. Books can’t be written in a vacuum. All authors are inspired by real life. Just because there are similarities between this book and the author’s life doesn’t mean that somebody’s going to get murdered. Be reasonable, people.
Okay. Stuck in Neutral is the story of fourteen-year-old Shawn, a boy with cerebral palsy. Shawn has no control over his body. He can’t move or speak. Since he has no way to communicate, he’s trapped inside his own head. Shawn’s father worries that Shawn’s condition is causing him pain that he’s unable to express. As Shawn’s father becomes more obsessed with his son’s possible pain, Shawn starts to wonder if his father is planning on killing him.
The summary makes this book sound intense—and it is—but it’s also surprisingly hilarious. The novel is written in first-person, so the reader gets to hear all of the thoughts that Shawn is unable to say. He’s very blunt about his situation:
“There is one final bad-news punch line to my life. This bad news is complicated, difficult to explain. In a nutshell, it’s that I am pretty sure that my dad is planning to kill me. The good news is that he’d be doing this out of his love for me. The bad news is that whatever the wonderfulness of his motives, I’ll be dead.” – Stuck in Neutral
Shawn’s life is not completely miserable. He acknowledges that his medical problem has some benefits. For example, he gets to see his sister’s friends change clothes at a sleepover because they don’t think he can understand what’s going on. Additionally, his seizures cause a dreamlike, floating feeling that makes him calm and happy. He’s taught himself to enjoy the little things in life.
“Think about it: Why should we care whether what makes us happy is just an electrical impulse in our brain or something funny that we see some fool do on TV? Does it matter what makes you smile? Wouldn't you rather be happy for no reason than unhappy for good reasons?” - Stuck in Neutral
Shawn’s sense of humor and positive attitude help tone down the intensity of the book. I actually had a lot of fun reading it.
My only big criticism is that this novel is very short. My copy is only about 115 pages. I think it could have benefitted from being longer. Shawn doesn’t have an action-packed existence, but I wondered about the other people in his life. Shawn’s mother is his full-time caregiver, but we barely see her. He has a brother and sister who we don’t learn much about.
I also had mixed feelings about Shawn’s acceptance of his father’s (possible) murder plan. Realistically, Shawn has no choice but to accept it. He can’t communicate, and he can’t fight. If his father decides to murder him, he’s going to die, but I think that Shawn’s suspicion of the murder plot should have caused more angst.
Stuck in Neutral was first published in 2001 and was a major influence in the teen “problem novel” genre. It won awards and got a lot of people talking. It’s a brave and thought-provoking book. It confronts taboo subjects that make some readers uncomfortable, such as euthanasia and the rights of severely disabled children and their parents. Even though these topics are unpleasant to discuss, they’re important.
This book made me think about how able-bodied people project their feelings onto the severely disabled. I don’t know any severely disabled people in real life, so I’ve never thought about this before. Shawn’s father sees Shawn’s seizures and assumes that they’re painful. He assumes that Shawn’s cerebral palsy prevents him from enjoying life. In reality, Shawn isn’t bothered by his seizures, and he has developed a unique way of connecting to the world. This book shows that you can’t make assumptions about a person. Just because someone is disabled doesn’t mean that he/she is suffering.
This is a quick and powerful read with an exceptional protagonist. I need to find more books like this one.